When the end of McDonald’s tenure was approaching, the three senior most Pakistani officers were Air Commodores Haider Raza, Maqbool Rabb and Asghar Khan, in that order. Raza who later rose to be an air vice marshal, recalls being told by Prime Minister Suhrawardy that he (Raza) had been considered suitable for the top post after McDonald’s departure. However, Air Vice Marshal Raza believes that opinion of the army chief carried a lot of weight and General Ayub Khan favoured Asghar. Whatever the opinions of the prime minister or the army C-in-C, the rank and file of the PAF were of one mind in their conviction that Air Marshal Asghar Khan more than lived up to that promise.
Born in 1921, Asghar Khan completed the last phase of his education at Aitchison College, Lahore and entered the Royal Indian Military College at Dehra Dun as a first step towards joining the Indian Army. He would have dearly loved to become a fighter pilot but at the time the size of the Indian Air Force still remained frozen and no new entries were contemplated. As soon as the gates of the IAF were opened soon after the outbreak of WWII, Asghar Khan obtained a transfer to the air force in which he was commissioned in December 1940.
His service in the IAF included command of No 9 Squadron for a little over a year followed by a tenure that ended at partition, as chief flying instructor in the operational training unit (OTU) flying Spitfires at Ambala. In the RPAF his prominent assignment before becoming the C-in-C at the young age of 36, included the first command of what is now the PAF Academy, a tenure as Group Commander at Peshawar and separate tours at Air Headquarters as head of the operations branch and of the admin branch. In between he gained a joint services staff college qualification as well as one at the Imperial Defence College in London.
Prominent among the major units he established during his tenure were the Fighter Leaders School, the PAF Staff College and the College of Aeronautical Engineering. He also instituted the Inspectorate and initiated the tradition of regular air staff presentations.
Two criticisms concerning his style of command were that he was inclined to be autocratic in his decision making; some also thought him rather whimsical in his selection of officers for key appointments. Most retired senior officers, however, concede Asghar Khan’s assertion that he went out of his way to elicit a whole range of opinions before taking a decision, but once that decision was made he would not tolerate any ifs and buts about its implementations. As for the selection process, he made no secret of his willingness to ruffle a few feathers by superseding some officers if that became unavoidable in ensuring that the best men filled the key appointments, particularly in the combat units.
It was Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s good fortune that he took office as C-in-C PAF when the bulk of expensive hardware and real estate had already been pledged by the US government on an indefinite basis. He was thus spared the frustration which he would undoubtedly have faced in getting budgetary allocations for even half the proposed expansion. As it was he inherited a guaranteed programme which raised the number of fighter squadron from 4 to 9, of which 8 were equipped with the state-of-the-art Sabre fighter-bomber and one with the fabled F-104. With the package also came two squadrons of B-57 bombers, one of C-130 transports and a whole fleet of T-37 and T-33 trainers.
Added to these were brand new jet runways at Mauripur, Peshawar and Samungli, and an entire new base at Sargodha. And these were the two major radar complexes at Sakesar and Badin. All of these came absolutely free of cost and Asghar Khan was able to devote his energies to meshing the whole complex into an efficient war machine. That he succeeded resoundingly in doing so was demonstrated by the spectacular performance of his air force in the war of September 65, a scant 6 weeks after he had handed over its custodianship to his successor. It was indeed a grand irony of fate that Air Marshal Asghar Khan reaped the ultimate reward of his eight years of labour at the hands of his archrival Air Marshal Nur Khan.